To Edward Williams
Percy Bysshe Shelley
The serpent is shut out from Paradise.
The wounded deer must seek the herb no more
In which its heart-cure lies:
The widowed dove must cease to haunt a bower
Like that from which its mate with feigned sighs
Fled in the April hour.
I too must seldom seek again
Near happy friends a mitigated pain.
Of hatred I am proud,—with scorn content;
Indifference, that once hurt me, now is grown
But, not to speak of love, pity alone
Can break a spirit already more than bent.
The miserable one
Turns the mind’s poison into food,—
Its medicine is tears,—its evil good.
Therefore, if now I see you seldomer,
Dear friends, dear FRIEND! know that I only fly
Your looks, because they stir
Griefs that should sleep, and hopes that cannot die:
The very comfort that they minister
I scarce can bear, yet I,
So deeply is the arrow gone,
Should quickly perish if it were withdrawn.
When I return to my cold home, you ask
Why I am not as I have ever been.
YOU spoil me for the task
Of acting a forced part in life’s dull scene,—
Of wearing on my brow the idle mask
Of author, great or mean,
In the world’s carnival. I sought
Peace thus, and but in you I found it not.
Full half an hour, to-day, I tried my lot
With various flowers, and every one still said,
‘She loves me—loves me not.’
And if this meant a vision long since fled—
If it meant fortune, fame, or peace of thought—
If it meant,—but I dread
To speak what you may know too well:
Still there was truth in the sad oracle.
The crane o’er seas and forests seeks her home;
No bird so wild but has its quiet nest,
When it no more would roam;
The sleepless billows on the ocean’s breast
Break like a bursting heart, and die in foam,
And thus at length find rest:
Doubtless there is a place of peace
Where MY weak heart and all its throbs will cease.
I asked her, yesterday, if she believed
That I had resolution. One who HAD
Would ne’er have thus relieved
His heart with words,—but what his judgement bade
Would do, and leave the scorner unrelieved.
These verses are too sad
To send to you, but that I know,
Happy yourself, you feel another’s woe.
Some poems you just can’t get out of your head. They become a part of your consciousness, twigs of phrases woven into the magpie’s nest of your brain. Every now and then, a line from such a poem will pop into your head unbidden, and you will spend hours trying to remember where it comes from, or what comes next.
For me, To Edward Williams is one such poem. The first time I read it (at 15, reading Shelley’s Complete Works) I wasn’t too impressed. What was with all the capital lettering? And that bit about ‘she loves me, she loves me not’? Cringe.
But scattered among the chaff of all that is trite and sentimental in this poem are lines of precise and living beauty – and as the years have passed lines like “Indifference, that once hurt me, now is grown / itself indifferent” have come to take on a somewhat prophetic air. Shelley’s talent as a phrase maker is on full display here, though this is, for Shelley, a remarkably conversational, almost intimate poem. Shelley mixes his usual ‘visionary’ rhetoric with the memory of more everyday scenes (“I asked her yesterday if she believed / that I had resolution”), creating a sense of realism; and cliched as some of the images here are, the sadness that speaks through them seems authentic and deeply felt. As Shelley says himself: “These verses are too sad / to send to you, but that I know / Happy yourself, you feel another’s woe”.
Note: As I remember it, the second line of the first stanza should read ‘herd’ rather than ‘herb’. The versions I found online say ‘herb’ though, so I’ve stuck with that for now, even though, contextually, I think ‘herd’ makes more sense.